'I don't blame people for not trusting HR'

Changing role, social media, high-profile mistakes contribute to blemished image, says expert

'I don't blame people for not trusting HR'

Employees are “rightly distrustful of HR,” according to one expert.

This attitude started when HR transitioned to become business partners, according to Cierra Gross, CEO and principal consultant at consulting firm Caged Bird HR.

“When HR made its transformation into strategic business partners, I think HR did it for the right reasons. But it had a lot of unintended consequences. And so, when the entire function’s main client became the business, as opposed to serving employees, that was the beginning of the distrust [being] embedded in these organizations.”

More organizations have an HR department that’s considered a partner in planning and executing strategy (about 45 per cent) compared to those that ask HR for input on planning and involve them in strategy execution (about 30 per cent), according to a previous report.

Social media becoming front and center about a decade ago also hurts HR, said the Caged Bird HR CEO.

“Employees are now being open and honest and forthcoming, and using TikTok and Instagram and LinkedIn even to pull the curtain back off of their real experiences. It's not hard for people to look at the experiences of others and say, ‘Oh, have you got burned? Then I'm probably going to get burned’.”

Mistakes don’t help

And sometimes employers just make wrong decisions, she said, citing the Google walkout incident back in 2018 after a New York Times report said Google gave a US$90-million exit package to Andy Rubin after the former senior vice president was accused of sexual harassment. Workers went on to ask for an investigation into the company’s HR department.

“That's an absolutely wrong decision that they made, in my opinion. But when the world is watching, it feeds into this narrative that HR is really not there to protect employees, they're there to serve the company. And so when that line of thinking entered into employees’ consciousness, I don't blame people for not trusting HR,” said Gross.

And she also pulls from her own experiences “of unclear expectations or no expectations being set. Racism, being subjected to tropes at work. Once an executive suggested I was angry in a meeting when I wasn’t. People assuming I’m the diversity hire instead of a qualified candidate.”

Why trust matters

HR is such an important part of the business model, said Gross.

“When we think about the most important cyclical processes that HR executes – performance management, compensation and things like that – employees want to know that they're being treated fairly, that they're being treated equitably, and that they're able to engage with these processes in a safe way.”

Without that trust, employers can’t paint the picture of employee engagement within their organization, she said. And that’s bad for business.

“If you don’t trust the other person, you're not going to show up in the same way. You're not going to give your all to the relationship because they violated your trust. And so the same is true in corporate America.”

People who don't trust the organization, says Gross, ask questions like: ‘Why would I even ask for a raise? Why would I even go and tell them about my negative experience? Why would I even bother showing up and really engaging and having high productivity when I don't trust that this is going to result in any meaningful career movement for me?’

Many employees have negative associations with HR departments, citing HR's lack of transparency and employee-friendly values as the main reasons, said Vivek Balokhra, senior manager for human resources at Sun Life.

A lack of trust in the workplace can create an unmotivated and disengaged workforce where staff feel disempowered and even psychologically unsafe, according to a previous report.

Gaining employees' trust

If employers hope to gain their workers’ trust back, they need to take a step back, said Gross.

They, she said, should ask themselves key questions like: ‘How did we get to a point where the broader employee population really doesn't trust one piece of this puzzle or the whole pipeline in and of itself?’ and ‘How do we train HR to execute these processes in a more transparent way, in a more equitable way, and in a way that recognizes the whole human on the other side of the process?’

“Capitalism has a very masculine view of oppression and exploitation and things like that. And it doesn't have to be that way.”

Here are other ways employers can gain employee trust, according to learning and development firm The Kevin Eikenberry Group:

  • Align your words and actions.
  • Give credit to those who deserve it.
  • Invest in your employees.
  • Share information.
  • Put an end to gossip and bullying.
  • Listen to your staff.

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